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THE WRITING ON (AND OFF) THE WALL MORE THAN 30 YEARS LATER, HOT WHEELS CARS STILL ROLLIN'.

Byline: TOM HOFFARTH

Before there was any live TV coverage of the Indianapolis 500 or any NASCAR event demanded national attention, there were the bajillion Hot Wheels races.

The Twin Mill. The Beatnik Bandit. The Swingin' Wing. The Hot Heap. The Mighty Maverick. The Dodge Deora. And all the custom versions of the Corvettes, Camaros, T-Birds, Cougars and El Dorados. In metallic green, brown, blue, silver - even purple.

The cost: A quarter apiece, down at the department store.

Then the living room became a maze of orange plastic strips, starting with the push-button starting gate, through the dare-devil loops, to the finish line with the trip switch that officially declared the winner.

To add weight, lead strips were taped to the bottom of the cars. To add speed, the thin wire axels were tweaked. To make the rubber tires spin faster, they were coated with margarine from the refrigerator.

Those that won lived to race another day. Those that didn't found their way to the backyard, where my younger brother decided to test their durability with a hammer, firecracker or a straight drop from the garage roof.

In one ``Wonder Years'' moment, the world is 1968 again, the first year Southern California-based Mattel decided to upgrade their version of the Matchbox cars by adding spinning tires.

``These are really hot wheels,'' said Mattel founder Elliot Handler after one of his designers rolled the metal toy car across his desk.

A name, and an extension of the motor car culture, was born.

The 35th anniversary of the mini motorless marvels began with the opening of a permanent exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum on the Miracle Mile stretch of Wilshire Blvd., in mid-city Los Angeles.

In among the historical pieces such as the Mickey Thompson Z-06 427 ``Mystery Motor'' car that once won a race at Dodger Stadium in 1963 and a J.C. Agaganian piece of tin that took the Indy 500 in the 1950s are full-scale versions of Hot Wheels classics that can be street driven - without the plastic tracks.

A Twin Mill that can produce 1400 horsepower is pretty darn impressive. But then there's a wall of tiny, metal gems, stacked in chronological order, glimmering like diamonds.

To any of us on this end of the Baby Boomer generation, it's like an archaeological dig of our bedroom closets or our parents' attics. The only thing missing is the giant tire-shaped carrying case.

The original, old school 16 authentic Hot Wheels are there - many inspired by the muscle cars that raced through the San Fernando Valley at the time - and their evolutionary progression to the modern-day versions that sell for an astounding 99 cents also are accounted for.

Since that prototype rolled off Handler's table, Mattel has sold more than 3 billion of 'em, producing 11,000 variations of 800 models - more than Detroit's Big Three automakers have pushed out of the assembly line since the beginning of the car industry in the early part of the 20th century.

Always synergetic with auto racing, starting out with the McLaren, Lotus and Ferrari machines that ran in the 24 Hours of Daytona, they've lately become part of the NASCAR culture. The 1/64th-scale versions of the Earnhardt, Elliott and Gordon rides are the most-popular recreations today.

But they've also sneaked into baseball's boundaries, too. The Dodgers have a annual giveaway night of a special-edition car made with their team logo - it's one of the best-attended promotions of the season. A dozen other Major League Baseball teams have similar nights.

Today's Internet-savvy collectors won't let the dream die, either. A pink 1969 VW Beach Bomb with two surfboards sticking out the back - on display at the Petersen - is estimated to be worth $100,000. Only 22 are known to exist of the test model that was never mass produced.

Thankfully, the Hot Wheel legacy shows no slowing up.

``It'll never go away,'' said Amy Boylan, Mattel's senior vice president in charge of the Hot Wheel division. ``As long as people have a love for cars, it will be more than a toy in a toy store.

``Just like baseball, it's all the good stuff kids imagine about. It's about aspirations. It's healthy dreaming.''

California dreaming. And California driving. A hot combination that wheels onward.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 25, 2003
Words:728
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